In the Old Testament the altar was a place of sacrifice. In the New Testament it was the table of the Lord, with the Lord’s Supper as the central idea.
In many churches, the altar is the center for the observance of the Lord’s Supper. In others, the altar is more than a table, it also includes a kneeling bench. The Lord’s Supper is the commemoration of the death of Jesus for our sins. How appropriate, then, that a kneeling bench be included, where one can personally accept by faith the death of Jesus for one’s sins!
In churches with this type of altar-centered message, the public altar is very important. The emphasis of the sermon is to bring people into personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who died for them. One is brought into this relationship, not by joining a church, but by confessing one’s sins to Christ and by faith accepting his offering on the cross for sin.
By some this is called conversion; by others, the new birth; and by others repentance. Some believe this can be experienced at home or some other place than at a public altar. That is not beyond the realm of possibility. However, such cases are rare and the use of a public altar is important for the following reasons:
1. The public altar offers a chance for a new beginning. Most people, at sometime during their lives, feel they should change their way of life; should improve their conduct; should become Christians. The church should make every effort to make possible the good intentions of people.
Good intentions are far easier to put into action when opportunity is given immediately to do the good thing. A place of beginning is needed for Christian living. One must begin somewhere. The alert and concerned church will make a strong plea for sinners to come and be converted, for very few will find God unless opportunity is given.
2. The average individual needs an immediate opportunity to act upon the religious message. A place in the church needs to be designated for this purpose. If no opportunity is given, most individuals will go home from church heavy of heart rather than to take the initiative to call the minister.
3. The altar offers a convenient place to pray. Whatever one’s needs, the altar is the “table of the Lord” where spiritual food can be found.
4. At the church experienced people (those who have been converted) are usually present to pray with the seekers and give needed direction.
5. The altar gives opportunity for public testimony. Jesus said, “Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32 [All passages from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible are marked with an asterisk]). It is much easier for the new convert to make the later acknowledgment to the world if he begins immediately by accepting Christ publicly. It takes much courage to walk to the front of the church before all one’s associates and make this open acknowledgment of need.
6. The public altar makes the congregation become participants in the conversion of sinners.
The Altar Committee
Because of the central message of conversion and the tremendous importance of the altar in conversion, the church should have regular altar workers. Very frequently, unless someone is assigned to this work, the work is not done adequately. If possible, the altar committee should include some young, some old, both men and women. Above all, they should be concerned Christians, of average intelligence, who know how to pray. This does not mean that others in the church should feel less interested or responsible for sinners. It does, however, assure that someone will be there to help the seeker. The larger the congregation, the more necessary becomes the work of the altar committee.
The committee should have a chairman or leader who holds occasional meetings with the group, to keep a permanent feeling of concern, to talk over problems, and to pray together. The group should be so organized that at every service capable people are present to counsel with those in need.
Altar workers should be discreet individuals who will not divulge the many problems that are poured into their ears. They should never betray a confidence, but should be committed to a life of silence concerning the secrets of men.
Suggested Methods of Altar Work
1. Have confidence in yourself. Anyone can learn to do commendable altar work if he is a normal and well-adjusted Christian. The main requirement is desire.
2. Realize the importance of the event. This is the greatest event of a man’s life, his going to the altar. He should, therefore, have our best and our undivided attention.
a. As soon as someone goes to the altar, a worker should kneel beside him. It has taken courage to go there in the first place. He should immediately feel that someone is in it with him, and should feel the kindness and concern of that person.
b. The worker should take plenty of time.
(1) Allow the seeker to pray silently for a few minutes. The worker should also pray for guidance and divine wisdom.
(2) By that time some things will become apparent—heartbroken, frightened, over-emotional types will be easily detected. In any case, something brought this one there—don’t let him down. Make him know there is real satisfaction for him in Christ.
3. Rely completely upon God.
a. Regardless of how much experience you have had, rely upon God, for he is the only real specialist of the human mind and spirit. No two cases are alike, and only God knows the inner man.
(1) Practice asking directions of God in the everyday affairs of life. Start with little things in the home, disciplining the children, answering their questions, or the questions of those with whom you work. Ask directions, expect an answer and deliver that answer. This faith and habit in the daily walk with God will carry over into the altar work.
(2) Then act on the answer God gives you. Don’t clutter it up with ideas of your own. Many of our best workers say there is too much talking at the altar, too much of man and not enough of God.
b. While the seeker is praying—you should pray in desperation, too, during those first few moments at the altar. Remember that a soul is at stake. If a man comes and is disappointed, he may never return.
4. Those first few minutes.
a. Don’t fear awkwardness. Quiet prayer and trust is not awkward. Why hurry?
(1) The first question. “Can I help you?” is nearly always good, as it tells nothing except that you care. It presupposes nothing concerning the condition of the seeker, and it shows your concern. It brings attention to the problem at hand.
(2) The important thing is God’s love in you as you ask—your voice, countenance, and attentiveness.
b. Let him answer—you have asked a question. Give him time for an answer.
(1) Be an interested listener to the answer.
(2) Give intelligent and prayerful attention. It is your clue to what you do next.
(3) If he has come for salvation, it will come out.
c. The prayer. Begin with another question.
(1) “Would you like me to pray for you?”
(2) Make the prayer sincere—it matters little what else it is.
d. Value of the seeker’s prayer.
(1) Often it is wise to ask the seeker to pray aloud. This breaks down barriers, imaginary and otherwise.
(2) Often this creates faith. “God be merciful to me” expressed sometimes breaks the barrier to faith.
(3) The seeker may be unable to pray aloud. Don’t insist. It may be psychologically impossible.
(4) His prayer may be started with your question, “Now wouldn’t you like to ask God to forgive you?”
(5) If religion is rather new to him, he may need help to pray. If he shows willingness and yet a lack of knowledge, it may be helpful to have him pray after you, sentence by sentence. Keep it short and to the point to avoid confusing him. Insist that he think about the words as he repeats them. Make it as meaningful as a wedding ceremony.
5. Helps to his faith. The use of scripture.
a. General rule—memorize scripture almost daily. There are two reasons for this:
(1) It helps to make God real to you.
(2) It is an aid in helping others.
b. The psychological value of memory work.
(1) God can only bring from your mind what is already there. He may rearrange it in varying combinations, but the seed of the thought is usually there.
(2) Material that is in the subconscious will come to the surface through proper stimuli. Prayer is that stimulus which will bring what you have learned to the fore when you need it; that is, providing you have learned it. This is one argument for memorizing scripture.
c. Types of scripture: These should be aids to faith; those on salvation, hope, assurance, etc. Some examples are:
(1) He that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.
(2) I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
(3) In the day that you seek me with all your heart …
(4) Though your sins be as scarlet …
(5) Ask, and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find.
(6) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Jesus came into the world to save sinners. It is sincerely hoped that it is also the central purpose of his church.
Sincere repentance is the principal requirement for salvation. The seeker need not confess his sins to the worker, but must confess them to God. He may need to be reminded of God’s love and compassionate forgiveness. Occasionally the penitent may be hindered in his grasp of salvation by extreme remorse over the past. Such parables as the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, may help him to understand that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Sometimes an unforgiving spirit may hinder the penitent. He must be made to realize that “He who loves God should love his brother also” (I John 4:21* [All passages from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible are marked with an asterisk]).
Someone may come who feels self—righteous. His life may have been morally good and repentance may seem unnecessary. Jesus said, “Except ye repent, ye shall all … perish” (Luke 13:3).
Unfortunately, some people stumble over the failure of Christians. It may be necessary to point out that no one is perfect in this life, except God. Even the Apostle Paul admitted that he had not yet arrived—that he was not yet perfect (Phil. 3:12). It is dangerously foolish to compare ourselves with others. It may result in our doing less than our best, and missing salvation entirely. God may demand more of some than of others, depending upon knowledge and circumstances. One thing is certain, and that is that one must be born again or he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
A frequent hindrance to belief is the fear that one cannot live the Christian life after he has started. This is just as illogical as fearing to attend school for fear one will fail; fearing to get a job for fear of being dismissed; fear of marriage because it might result in divorce. In a physical world, one must live by faith. In salvation, however, abundance of power and grace from God is offered for the asking.
Such promises as these may help: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” “There is nothing impossible to him that believeth; my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory.” And the famous words of the Apostle Paul: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Another frequent hindrance to faith is the insistence upon an emotional feeling or some tangible manifestation of the conversion event. Salvation is conditioned upon faith. This is not so unusual, for many of life’s transactions are also dependent upon faith. The light and power company has faith we will pay our bills at the end of the month. The banker, the grocer, the dairyman, the telephone company, and a multitude of greater and lesser men have faith that we will keep our word. That is all God asks of us—that we believe he will keep his word. He promises to save us if we confess our sins (I John 1:9). We believe his word and the work is done. How simple it all is!
Here are some other hindrances to faith. How would you answer them?
1. I don’t know enough about the Christian life.
2. I am not good enough.
3. I am a member of a lodge; that is enough religion for me.
4. There are some things I can’t give up.
5. I am afraid I could not hold out.
6. I want to have a good time first.
The doctrine of sanctification is the belief that the Holy Spirit will come into the heart of the believer through faith. This is an experience for Christians only as evidenced by John 14:15–17. Many persons fail to seek the Holy Spirit because of lack of understanding. Perhaps an examination of the biblical purpose of Holy Spirit baptism would be an aid to understanding.
The Holy Spirit was sent to give the believers power to witness or win the world for Christ. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8*). It is quite apparent that the apostles, after they received the Holy Spirit, were far different men than before receiving him. Compare the Peter of the trial of Jesus with the Peter of Acts. (Matt. 26:58–74 and Acts 2:22–37; Acts 4:1–20 and others.)
The Holy Spirit, as well as all divine gifts, comes as a result of the faith of the seeker. Apparently divine gifts are ours for the asking. Jesus rebuked the disciples one time for failing to ask, and said, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives” (Matt. 7:7–8* [All passages from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible are marked with an asterisk]). Again he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13* [All passages from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible are marked with an asterisk]).
Seeking for the Holy Spirit must be a completely unselfish endeavor. Remember that the purpose is to win the world for Christ. The first century church was filled, motivated, and led by the Holy Spirit. Through his power they accomplished the impossible. Every Christian should have a similar experience.
The One Who Doesn’t Know What He Wants
Very frequently there comes to the public altar those who are uncertain as to the specific need which brought them. Some may feel condemned and have no idea of the cause. The procedure will depend upon the situation and the inspiration of the moment.
Generally speaking, it is best to determine if the individual has been converted. Second, has he since that time done things which he knows to be wrong? If so, the procedure is clear: ask God’s forgiveness, and go on the way rejoicing. If not, the worker will need to get at the cause of the “uneasy” feeling of the seeker.
Sometimes the cause is mental depression due to illness; sometimes it is a result of habit patterns of the past. The seeker may at one time have been a part of a group who habitually went to a public altar during revival meetings; he may have been over stimulated by an emotional appeal. One thing is certain: God does not condemn. (Note John 8:11 and John 3:17.) When we do wrong, it is known to us and therefore very clear. When we feel uneasy and condemned and know no reason for it, God is certainly not the cause. God is the good Father and cannot possibly condemn people. It is contrary to his nature.
The worker should be thoroughly familiar with the content and meaning of I John 3:19–24. The seeker should be made to feel that he can be confident unless he has knowingly committed sin. At times conduct before conversion may cause condemnation. Thinking of the past is never good unless it causes a change for the better. Paul’s view was to forget what was behind and live for the future (Phil. 3:12–16).
God intends his children to be happy and secure in him, to exhibit poise so as to attract sinners. A person is not poised when under condemnation. Read Romans 8:1.
The Sin Against the Holy Spirit
The conviction that one has sinned against the Holy Spirit is more common than is generally supposed. Often people with this conviction come to the altar. It may be that the public altar is not the time or place to talk over this grave matter. It may require much more time and concentration than is possible at the public altar.
Whenever counseling is done, it would be well for the counselor to know the basic facts concerning the sin against the Holy Spirit. Perhaps no one knows for certain exactly what it is, but if one knows the scriptures which allude to it, it will help in attempting to understand its meaning.
First of all, scripture must be kept in the context or setting in which it originated. One should know who was speaking, to whom the words were spoken, and the occasion which produced the words. The earliest record of the sin against the Holy Spirit is in Mark 3:22–30. The setting of this scripture is Capernaum where Jesus had been casting out an evil spirit. (Note Luke 11:14.) The Pharisees and scribes (Matt. 12:24; Mark 3:22) declare that Jesus is possessed with the devil and it is through the power of Satan that Jesus has cast out the evil spirit. Jesus, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees said that they had sinned against the Holy Spirit.
The scripture plainly declares why Jesus said this and what he was talking about. The conclusion of the incident is given in Mark 3:28–30, where Jesus says, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”*, for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Apparently the sin was viewing the great miracles of Jesus, watching him day by day doing great good, and then saying he was a devil. Needless to say, it is the worst form of cruelty to cause the condemnation of people and accuse them of this terrible sin. With loving concern the altar worker should seek to help the unfortunate people who have been so mistaught.
Lack of Joy
It is typical human behavior to compare ourselves with our neighbors and to measure our successes or failures by the false standard someone else has set up. Happiness is a by-product of giving. Only when we lose our lives in service does true happiness come to us. It can never be found through seeking it. Christian joy is the gift of God and as such is not dependent upon circumstances. It is sometimes found in the most unlikely places. Frequently those having the least of this world’s goods or those most severely mistreated have the greatest joy. Since it is a gift, a person must receive it for it to be enjoyed. Therefore one ought to develop receptivity. A person can as easily train himself to look for joy as to look for sorrow in the world; to expect good rather than disappointment.
An excellent method is to belittle the disappointments and magnify the joys. Make mountains out of every happy moment and make molehills out of every unhappy one. Express sincere gratitude to God for every meal, for every comfort of home, for the strength to get up today and earn an honest living. Think of the millions of legless, sightless individuals who have found a triumphant joy. When tempted to complain of my job I think of my friend, well past forty, who started to school this year to become a teacher so that she can support her blind husband and two small children. She has a triumphant joy, and recently told me how good the Federal Government has been to them since her husband lost his eye-sight in the service. How wonderful to have access to a joy which does not depend upon riches or health or success, but is its own abundant reward.
Tried Before and Failed
A frequent statement, particularly among the young people of the church will be, “I have tried it before, but I don’t seem to keep it.” God will help you as a worker to get at the reason this young person did not retain his experience. He should be told that although salvation itself is the gift of God, it is, after all, a love relationship. No love relationship or friendship exists or reaches maturity without assistance. If a person wants friends he must “show himself friendly.” He cannot retain his friends unless he expresses his continued liking in some way. He may show it by being with the person a great deal, by talking with him and walking with him. The friendship grows by frequent letters and conversations and matures by the sharing of both joys and sorrows. So it is with God. We are introduced to him through an experience called conversion. This offer of his friendship is his gift to us. We cannot buy it for it is given freely. On the other hand it cannot be expected to develop into a satisfying friendship if we turn on our heel after the introduction and never speak to this new friend again or try to get in touch with him in the future. The dividends on any investment are in proportion to what we put in. In the spiritual realm the greater dividends are paid on a smaller investment than any other transaction in life.
Marital Problems and Divorce
Many unhappy situations are brought to the altar, but cases of this type should be referred to the pastor or a Christian marriage counselor. They may take weeks or months of counseling before a solution is reached.
The Follow-up Work
Far too many people come to the public altars of the church who are never heard from again. Much of this could be prevented by setting up an adequate program. The following is merely a suggestion. Other plans may be used with more profit:
1. Get the name and address of everyone who comes to the altar. Keep a record of these and an explanation of the need, such as, “for salvation,” “sanctification,” “deeper spiritual life,” etc. This can be done in a rather informal way and all records written after the altar service. If the meeting is a convention, camp meeting, or any service where several churches are represented, the record should also include the pastor’s name and be sent to him immediately so that he can give the necessary instruction.
2. If possible, classes should be given to new converts immediately. Some evangelists have a class each day or evening for all who have come to the altar. They could be taught the fundamentals of the Christian faith—how to pray; how to resist temptation; how to support the cause of Christ; and how to study the Bible. These sessions cannot very well be scheduled at the time they are at the altar. Friends or relatives are waiting for them and the altar service cannot be too long.
Such sessions could be conducted before the evening service. If done each day of the evangelistic campaign, the first converts of the meeting have a strong foundation from the beginning of the Christian life.
3. If this plan is not followed, an alternate plan is suggested. A visitation program should be carried-out during the revival and all new converts visited the day following their conversion. At this time instruction and encouragement can be given. Owing to varied working schedules, this plan is not usually as practicable.
Above all, have some system for keeping in touch with the new convert. Few people would be so heartless as to put a newborn child out in the cold world to shift for himself.
4. Each newcomer should be given one of the pamphlets suggested on the last page of this booklet.
The Christian Witness to the Church
At conversion the Christian receives from God an experience which is both emotional and logically sound. For the first time in his life he is free from the heavy sensation of guilt. His evil has not been excused—a fact which might add to his guilt. It has been frankly faced, admitted, but forgiven by the Lord of all.
In addition the Christian is given assurance of a future free from additional sin because of the presence and power of God to resist temptation. The sense of gratitude for this is so profound as almost to defy imagination. To keep all of this “bottled up” within the new convert is a crime to himself, to God, and to the church. There is a basic human need within all of us to tell good news and to express gratitude. It is essential to growth, and God’s cause is furthered by such expression.
The listening church is as excited over these first expressions of the new convert as adoring parents over the first crudely formed words or faltering steps of their child. Nothing is more tragic than to have to watch a child who fails to grow normally. A black shadow of despair is cast upon that home which nothing can completely dispel. But the normal growing child educates the parents from day to day as they watch life unfold. So it is with the church. God’s child will form his first words of gratitude and take his first steps and every opportunity must be given to assure his doing so. There should be immediate opportunity for the new convert to “testify” to his experience. This should be followed by regular opportunities to help within the program of the church. These expressions are the veins through which life blood flows to the rest of the body. Nothing is quite so effective in inspiring new life within an older Christian than to hear the enthusiastic report of new-found joy from the babe in Christ. The old story told again and again builds up faith and hope.
The Witness to the World
Almost from the moment of conversion the babe in Christ is aware of an amazing concern for lost humanity. How often one hears these words of testimony: “I wanted to take the whole world in my arms and carry them to Jesus.” This is also a part of the expression of gratitude and another of the first steps of Christian growth. How necessary it is for the church to encourage and provide opportunities for the development of this concern. This is the heart of the church. It is the organ which pumps the life blood through the veins and arteries. Christ left no other method for the expansion of the church than by the Christian witness. Apparently he had full confidence in its effectiveness. And surely in the first century he was not disappointed. Within a very few years the infant church, a small minority group in the isolated country of Palestine “turned the world upside down.” Without social position or military backing, and with meager formal education the little group of disciples won the Greco-Roman world for Christ. Within twenty years after Jesus’ death the gospel had reached Europe, Africa, much of the near and Middle East, and as far west as Rome. The proponents of Christianity had become so effective in their witness and the adherents of paganism had lost so much business that economic instability caused riots among the first-century labor unions.
For the most part this was not accomplished through great oratory. Paul, one of the major actors in this drama, was not known to be a great speaker. According to his own words success was due to a testimony given by simple folk, housewives, day laborers, fishermen, and clerks. The “laymen” in the church impelled by an inner force and a divine concern for the eternal welfare of men took their occupations with them and “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:1–4). For the most part they were not preachers (professionally speaking), but every one gave his witness and the world was changed. This was the method Christ devised for the salvation of the world. It is founded upon the assumption that since success in the kingdom of God depends upon divine power, every Christian can and must be actively engaged in converting the sinner. The early church never thought to ask, “Shall I witness or not?” It was generally taken for granted that to be called from sin was to be called to active Christian service and witness. For a few people to feel responsible for the salvation of the world and for the rest to sit and listen to them preach was a first-century impossibility.
Since witnessing and salvation are basically one in the New Testament it behooves the church to devise ways to engage the new converts in an immediate expression of concern for the lost world. The following outline suggests some methods of capturing and utilizing this initial concern:
1. Realize that that which is born in the new convert is of God and that the new convert should naturally feel a concern for the lost just as does his heavenly Father.
2. Realize also that God’s wisdom and power are equally available to all who desire them. The new convert, the housewife, the day laborer can be used of God to win the lost as surely as the minister or the evangelist.
3. In all services where an evangelistic appeal is given, workers should be alerted to take the new converts “under their wings” immediately. Within an hour after the altar service the young convert should be incorporated into a Christian group at the corner drugstore or in a home or wherever Christian young people meet. This new babe in Christ should immediately feel he has new friends to replace evil companions, new interests for old habit patterns, and the blessing of a Christian friend who loves him. Workers from each age group should be ready to meet the needs of their age in varied ways.
4. Before the evening is over have prayer with the new-found friend and make a date for some kind of religious activity for the coming week. [For information concerning group witness write to the Board of Church Extension and Home Missions, Box 2069, Anderson, Ind. 46011.]
a. Invite him to go with a group to a nursing home, to visit a shut-in, to a city mission, the hospital, or to some special work with delinquent children or other needs of the community. Every congregation large or small should have some kind of regular group witness to the world.
The worker should, through wisdom given by God, be able to detect whether his new friend is too timid to be asked to participate in this first visit. He may want only to join in group singing or perhaps read a Scripture verse. Attention of the group should be directed toward meeting the needs of those visited so that the new convert forgets himself and soon joins in a co-operative effort to meet the religious or economic needs of others. The desire to help others is a part of his new-found experience and every possible attempt must be made to bring this desire to complete fruition in a natural way.
b. Religious surveys of certain areas of the city are excellent means of developing self-forgetfulness by a concern for others. A recent survey of a certain city revealed that only 2 per cent of the Negroes in that city of some 60,000 people attended church anywhere. This was not surprising in view of the fact that inequalities of job opportunity, education, housing, and other basic needs were produced at least partially by leading “church members.” The young convert assisting in such a survey forgets himself and tries to bring God to these situations.
c. After participation in such group activity where the Christian witness is a natural reaction to dire need the new convert leaves self-forgetfulness. He is soon launching out on his own and witnessing on his job, at school, in his home wherever and whenever the occasion demands that God’s spirit be applied to human need. Leaders are not born, they are made—and the best way to train a leader is to let him lead.
This is natural Christian growth and the way it is meant to take place. Through this method we could retain the thousands of converts usually lost every year and in addition the world around the church will be aware that someone cares. Many others may soon join the ranks of the new converts and also go on to maturity. Jesus explained this as leaven in which the good news of salvation pervades society until the “whole is leavened.”
There is no more important work in life than helping a soul to find God. In this task we are privileged to join with God in the greatest creative event possible—in creating man anew; in bringing about a spiritual birth.
It can be the most thrilling of all work to watch a sin-sick, heartbroken soul find God and see his conscience-ridden countenance change from grief to glory. Success in this endeavor requires the utmost sincerity and humility of spirit. The conscientious altar worker will be driven to God again and again for guidance, for wisdom, for a compelling passion.
At the altar with the soul whom you are seeking to guide, you will often be aware of your lack of wisdom. It must be so or God cannot speak through you. Remember that is was to believers that Jesus spoke when he said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). So, “ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). And not only your joy, but the everlasting joy of the penitent and the joy of heaven itself, for there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7).
[ The End ]
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